Hamza Kashgari To Be Released

Hamza Kashgari, the detained Saudi writer accused of blasphemy, will be freed in the next few weeks after a court in Riyadh accepted his repentance, multiple sources said.

Human rights activist Souad al-Shammary tweeted that a Sharia court in the capital has ratified his repentance in the presence of his family, and that he showed his regret over what he has written about the Prophet.

I have tried to reach Kashgar’s lawyer but he did not answer his phone, but I have confirmed this through a friend-of-a-friend of the writer. Local news site Sabq cited sources that also confirmed the news.

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Egypt: Domino Effect in Action?

I have been glued to the TV (and the laptop, the iPad and the iPhone) over the past few days, closely watching the events unfolding in Egypt. Thrilled to see Egyptians uprise against Mubarak, and concerned over the safety of my friends in the streets of Cairo. The regime has been trying to cut off the country from the rest of the world by shutting down the internet and mobile telecommunication. Obama statement was very disappointing, but I guess that doesn’t matter now. What matters is that the Egyptian people are standing up for their rights, and I hope that they won’t stop until they get them. Al Jazeera English is providing a great coverage, and CNN International is also doing a decent job, but I pay most of my attention to what people are saying on Twitter. This is the domino effect in realtime. Below are some pictures that I took during a demonstration held near the UN here in New York earlier today:

Tunisia is Free

Today was a huge, huge day for Tunisia. After four weeks of street protests, president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country. This is probably the first time we witness an Arab leader toppled by his own people. Very happy for the Tunisian people, and very proud of them. I’m especially thrilled for my friends Sami bin Gharbia and Slim Amamou, who worked tirelessly for years to see this day. The only thing that annoyed me was that Saudi Arabia welcomed the ousted dictator to find refuge in our homeland. But for now, let’s just live this historical moment. Here’s to a domino effect all over the Middle East.

PS. This is my favorite video of the day. I don’t know what’s more amazing: the man screaming “Tunisia is free” in the middle of the street, or the woman crying while shooting the video with her phone.

So Much for Free Thinking

During the few days after the inauguration of KAUST, some Saudis complained that the coverage of the event in the international media focused too much on the fact that it is the first time for a university in Saudi Arabia to have coed classes. Those have argued that KAUST has much more to offer to the country than mixing of the sexes, which could be true, but whether we like it or not, the issue of mixing was at the heart of the debate that accompanied the official launch of KAUST, and the opinions seemed divided between those who have a problem with it and those who don’t.

People at both ends of the sociopolitical spectrum have expressed their views on the issue in the media and on the web, but one influential voice was notably absent from the discussion. The absent voice I’m talking about here is that of the official religious establishment, especially the Council of Senior Ulema which holds the highest religious authority in the country and includes the most prominent clerics in its membership. Although notable, this absence was unsurprising at all. It has always been a common practice of the official religious establishment to keep silent when it finds itself in a confrontation with the political will of the ruling family. Some call it pragmatism, some call it hypocrisy. Your call.

shethri_2So it was business as usual, until Shiekh Sa’ad al-Shethri has spoken, and suddenly all hell broke loose. Al-Shethri, who is one of the youngest members of the Council, criticized mixing at KAUST during a fatwa show on al-Majd TV saying “mixing is a great sin and a great evil.” He also wanted a religious committee to look into the studies being conducted at the university and their compatibility with Shariah Law. Again, no surprise here: everybody knows exactly how conservatives feel about the relative freedom in the new campus, like how men and women can intermingle freely and the fact that women are not forced to wear abayas or cover their hair.

The real surprise, at least to me, came in how al-Shethri’s comments were received. The large number of articles written in response to the comments and the aggressive tone of these articles were nothing short of staggering. It started with a strongly-worded editorial by Jamal Khashoggi in al-Watan daily, who said al-Shethri would not be where he is if it was not for the support of King Abdullah, and therefor he should not speak publicly against the King’s university. Two dozens of articles in the local media followed Khashoggi’s steps and echoed pretty much the same idea, all attacking al-Shethri and telling him to keep his mouth shut.

This verbal assault was interesting to watch, but also sad. The so-called liberals proved they are no better than their opponents when it comes to taking cheap shots to gain political capital. The fact that both parties use the card of official support against each other is pathetic. Liberals claim the King is on their side and that their opponents are standing in the way of reform and development. Conservatives make the same claim regarding the King and accuse their opponents of being a novelty who try to destroy the very basis on which this country was founded. No constructive debate whatsoever, just a shouting match where everyone is a loser.

I believe there are at least two conclusions to make from this hoopla. First, free thinking does not yet exist here, especially not amongst the conservatives and not even amongst the so-called liberals. Second, opposing the royal will is still a red line that shall not be crossed by those who wish to continue climbing the ladder of influence. Al-Shethri was sacked from his position in the Council of Senior Ulema last night by a royal decree.

Matrook Al-Faleh Freed

Matrook al-Faleh has been released from jail earlier today. Al-Faleh was arrested last May in Riyadh after criticizing the poor situation of Buraida General Prison where his fellow activist Abdullah al-Hamed was jailed until last September after he completed a six-month sentence there. Al-Faleh, a political science professor at KSU, was put in solitary confinement for the whole period, he had no access to a lawyer, and no accusations were officially made against him.

It is good to see Matrook al-Faleh free again and back to his family and friends, and I certainly hope other jailed prisoners of conscience will be released soon.

You Can’t Kill the Future

It has been two weeks since Matrook al-Faleh was arrested in Riyadh. Despite requests from human rights organizations and the media, the Ministry of Interior is yet to explain why they arrested him.

Activist Fowzan al-Harbi has posted a message to the Saudis for Constitution group this morning saying that a relative of al-Faleh’s has attempted to visit him in al-Hayer Prison yesterday but has been denied. He has been told to go to the ministry, where he asked about the charges against al-Faleh. He has been told the charges are “releasing statements opposing the government and browsing banned websites.”

Jamila al-Uqla, al-Faleh’s wife, has told CNN last week following a visit to her husband in prison that he is in a terrible state. No one has been allowed to visit him since then.

It is truly sad that in a time when our country is trying reform and move towards more openness and freedom that a great intellectual like Matrook al-Faleh is detained for simply practicing his right of free speech by highlighting the miserable state of prisons; in a time when our King says even his majesty is not above criticism, people are being arrested for merely speaking their minds. It pains me to no end that as much as some of us love this country, they keep hurting those who love it the most. They keep on trying to dash our hopes without realizing that they can’t kill the future; they are just delaying the inevitable

Rights Bodies Appeal for Two Saudis

Human Rights Watch has urged courts in Jeddah to dismiss a case against Rai’f Badawi, founder of Saudi Liberals forums. On May 5, the prosecutor charged Badawi with “setting up an electronic site that insults Islam,” and referred the case to court, asking for a five-year prison sentence and a 3 million riyal fine.

Badawi no longer owns or controls the website. After unknown hackers, who probably think they were doing some sort of electronic jihad, attacked the website several times and threatened him and his family, he sold the website and fled the country two weeks ago. A new owner announced a while ago that he took over the website, which has been offline for more than a week now.

It is understood that Badawi will be tried according to the E-Crimes Act that has been issued in March 2007. The act, which can be found here (Arabic PDF), contains some laws that seem to target free speech such as Article 6 which incriminates “producing content which violates general order, religious values, public morals or sanctity of private life, or preparing it, or sending it, or storing it via the network or a computer.”

The questions is: who defines and specifies what are those religious values and what are those public morals? I don’t know if this act has been approved by the Shoura Council or not, because I think it is unacceptable for the Council to approve such act that contains these vague laws and articles which contradicts international conventions and accords on which Saudi Arabia is a signatory.

amnesty_logo On a related note, Amnesty International are appealing for Muhammad Ali Abu Raziza, a psychology professor at the University of Um al-Qura, who has been sentenced to 150 lashes and eight months’ imprisonment for meeting a woman in a coffee shop. There has been a lot of controversy surrounding this case and the reports on it in the local press has been full of contradictions. Therefor, I can’t make up my mind on who is at fault here.

However, I think the Commission should seriously reconsider how to define and deal with this whole “khulwa” thing. When a man and a woman meet in a public place like a cafe, a restaurant, or in the street where they are surrounded by people and others can see them, does it constitute a khulwa? I doubt that they will ever think this through but I guess it’s worth asking anyway.